Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 7, 2009 by permission of the author and the Norton Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Norton Museum of Art directly through this phone number or Web address



 

The Golden Age of American Printmaking 1900 - 1950

by Olga M. Viso

 

The first fifty years of this century are often described as the "Golden Age" of American printmaking due, in part, to the unprecedented number of artists who turned, with renewed interest, to this medium to express their thoughts, ideas and visions of America and its people. The Library of Congress records over 1000 American printmakers whose major work was accomplished between 1900 and 1950.[1] Traditionally used for book and journalistic illustration, the print entered the realm of fine art as artists explored traditional forms of etching and engraving and experimented with color printing techniques, including woodcut, lithography, and silkscreen. Some of the artists in this exhibition are among the century's best known painters, who at different moments created prints as another form of creative expression or in response to an invitation from one of the many artist groups, galleries or printmaking cooperatives active during this time. Others were artist-printmakers who specialized in graphics and have been overshadowed by America's painting tradition. Still others were professional illustrators and commercial printmakers who applied their skills to the development of new techniques and approaches that changed the face of American printmaking in the twentieth century.

There are a number of reasons why the graphic arts had such a flowering in America in the early part of the century, and particularly in the 1930s during the years of the Great Depression. A variety of organizations and artist groups developed from the need to find income for artists and to sell art in a deflated economy. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency, set up graphic studios and workshops in select U.S. cities. The intent of the Federal Art Projects was to give work to unemployed artists. The largest and most experimental of these was the New York WPA graphic unit (1935 - 43). The various studios under the New York WPA encouraged creativity and revived interest in lithography and woodcut, as well as popularized color screenprinting techniques through the innovation of Anthony Velonis (Washington Square, 1939, serigraph) and other WPA printmakers who adapted the method from commercial screenprinting techniques. The impact of the introduction of color in American printmaking, and the new possibilities afforded through silkscreen (also referred to as serigraphy) can be seen in Riva Helfond's Warming Up, 1942 and Harry Sternberg's Steel, 1937. The potential of color woodcut is demonstrated in Joseph Rajer's Ropes and Lobster Pots and Ben Hoffman's The Campers, which were created in the New York WPA graphic studios between 1936 and 1942.

Associated American Artists (AAA), a private enterprise spearheaded by Reeves Lewenthal in 1934, was also born of the desire to stimulate the art market. AAA would invite artists of renown, many who were painters, to create lithographic stones or metal plates, from which limited editions would be published and then sold inexpensively to the public. Like the WPA, AAA fostered creativity, artistic exploration of the various print forms and the public's interest in prints as collectible, original art. AAA also motivated artists like Grant Wood, who had never made prints, to experiment with lithography. Another similar organization that contributed to the growing popularity of the print was the American Artists' Group, started in 1936, which also published affordable editions, portfolios of prints and Christmas cards by its artist-members. The Society of American Etchers, a group of etchers and lithographers, organized annual artist-selected print shows. In December of 1937 the American Artists' Congress held simultaneous exhibitions in 30 American cities. Entitled "America Today," each show included 100 prints made by many of the artists involved with the WPA.[2] These events and others led to the increasing acceptance of the print as an independent art form. Lithography was pioneered in America by Albert Sterner (The Model, c. 1920), who with George Bellows (Parlor Critic, 1921, fig. 7) started the organization Painters-Gravers of America in New York in 1915. This was the first artist group committed to the development of lithography as a fine art medium in America and included artists John Sloan and Edward Hopper. Up until this point American artists had to travel to Europe to make lithographs. In the 1920s, the Atelier Desjobert in Paris was virtually an American printhouse. Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Louis Lozowick, Reginald Marsh, Marsden Hartley and Thomas Hart Benton are but a few of the many American artists who made lithographs with Desjobert and other French printmakers in Paris during the 1920s and 30s. It was not until 1922 that lithography was actually taught in an American art school, and only then as a workshop. The full potential of silkscreen and lithography and the use of mixed media in printmaking would not be seen in America until the latter half of this century, but the innovations pioneered by many of the artist-printmakers in this exhibition prior to 1950 made these advances possible. After 1950 the American print would grow in size and artists would refine the use of color, apply different techniques in a single image and delight in the new modes of abstraction.

Artists of the American Scene includes over 50 lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, engravings, linocuts and silkscreens created by over 40 American artists during this "Golden Age" of printmaking. The prints in this exhibition are largely black-and-white and were created by conventional printmaking techniques. The select color prints included were experimental in their time and indicate the advances pioneered before 1950. Stylistically the prints are predominantly figurative and representational. They trace the persistence of realism in American art and culminate in the semi-abstracted images of Stuart Davis and John von Wicht, moments before the proliferation of abstraction in American printmaking.

 

THE AMERICAN SCENE

 

In the early decades of this century, American artists became attuned to a vision of America as a nation that was coming of age on an international level, both economically and politically. This vision manifested itself in the arts as artists turned to America for subject matter rather than to the familiar and popular scenes of Europe and the romantic Near East that had dominated American printmaking up until this time. The term "American Scene" was first applied in the 1920s to describe this new direction. The regionalist artist John Steuart Curry described the "American Scene" as follows:

"Thousands of us are now painting what is called 'the American Scene.' We are glorifying landscapes, elevated stations, subways, butcher shops, 14th Street, Mid-western farmers, and we are one and all painting out of the fullness of our life and experiences."[3]

On canvas and on paper, artists indeed focused passionately on American subjects and the many facets of American life. They captured the changing shape of the urban landscape, the great breadth and richness of America's countryside, the products of new technology, the subtlety and drama of everyday life events, as well as the effects of modernization on society. Artists of the American Scene presents a record of life throughout America during the first half of the twentieth century and encompasses the major artistic movements witnessed before 1950, including American Impressionism, Social Realism, Regionalism and Modernism. Rather than approach the works chronologically or stylistically, the Museum has organized this exhibition around various subject-categories, which include The City, Modern Life, Traditional American Life, Satire/Caricature, The Figure and Other Subjects.

 

The City

 

The changing skyline of Manhattan and other major cities across America appealed to many artists, and the city is one of the largest groupings of Artists of the American Scene. Skyscrapers were indeed potent symbols in America, and like Gothic cathedrals in the Middle Ages, they were seen to measure a city's power. Louis Lozowick's utopian vision, Above the City, 1932 (fig. 1), with its towering skyscrapers shooting to the heavens, glorifies the potential of urban life and the Machine Age. The timeless figure of the worker raising a steel beam evokes images of a modern Atlas carrying the world into the future. The European tradition of architectural prints recording the impressive achievements of Europe's great architects was carried on in America by Joseph Pennell. Pennell and his followers, including Anton Schutz, however, preferred to depict America's city structures rather than Europe's cathedrals and architectural treasures. Schutz's Three Giants, an etching of 1927, records with a triumphant realism three of Boston's impressive buildings. John Marin created an entire series of prints on the American skyscraper, including buildings in New York City, Pittsburgh and Chicago. His etching Downtown -- the El, 1921 (fig. 4), captures the explosive environment he found upon his return from Europe. Embracing the modern, Marin's abstracted prints delight in the upward thrust of the buildings along the city skyline, and in the elevated train, a personal fascination and the subject of many prints. Marin said, "I see great forces at work; great movements; the large buildings and the small buildingsso I try to express graphically what a great city is doing."[4]

Stuart Davis, like his contemporary Marin and many other artists of the American scene, had spent time in Europe where he was exposed to European modernist trends, trends that had also been motivated by the technological advances of the century. Davis' lithograph, Arch No. 2, 1929 (fig. 2), was inspired by the flat, geometrical aspects of Cubism. This Parisian street scene, however, is captured through the eyes of an American visitor whose syncopated interpretation of the cafés and storefronts is decidedly American in spirit and embodies the artist's fascination with American jazz. Like many of his contemporaries, Davis went to Paris (1928 - 29) in search of artistic stimulation and interaction, and to learn lithography. It was while in Paris that he printed his first important series of lithographs, including Arch No. 2. This early lithograph and others were important precursors to abstract printmaking in America. Hananiah Harari's later screenprint, City Signs, 1938 (cover illustration), translates into color the same energy and spirit of Davis' prints, as well as his paintings. In a whimsical, semi-abstract style, Harari colorfully evokes the kaleidoscope of images along a city's crowded streets. Taking abstraction further and indicating the direction of American art in the 1950s, is John von Wicht's color lithograph, Dawn, of 1954. In this work von Wicht has reduced the city to a simple arrangement of lines that suggest, through their interplay and gesture, the texture, atmosphere and mood of the city in the early morning hours.

 

Modern Life

 

The effects of modernization on daily life were also of equal interest to America's artists. Philip Reisman's etching Pershing Square, 1930, evocatively captures the less epic side of urban life. Here the artist presents the old virtually clashing with the new, as a horse prepares to rear before an oncoming crosstown train. Like Reisman, many artists chose to direct their attention to the characters who inhabited city streets -- the pedestrians, the shop attendants and the homeless. John Sloan looked for his subjects anywhere crowds of people gathered -- at Coney Island, theaters, shop windows, dance halls, burlesque houses, street corners and city parks. He created an extensive series of etchings from 1905 - 49 devoted to "New York City Life." Sloan's small prints (some 3" x 4") record intimate slices of life that are sensitive and poetic (Girls Running, 1914 and Nude Reading, 1928). Other prints by Sloan mix humor with social comment, perhaps more typical of The Eight (Ashcan artists) who preferred to depict the "seamier" side of American urban life. Christmas Dinners, 1909, for example, portrays a Salvation Army representative collecting contributions to feed 25,000 of the city's needy. As Sloan described the scene, the "lank hungry man loitering wishes the Christmas dinner wasn't so far away from him."[5]

Isabel Bishop observed life around New York's Union Square from her studio. Her etchings, Delayed Departure, 1935, and Two Girls Outdoors, 1953 (fig. 3), focus on the small dramas of the everyday. Her interest in the human figure led her to concentrate on intimate encounters and conversations, where the figures fill the entire composition. Bishop would work from live models in her studio; she would pose them according to situations she had seen on the street. Bishop preferred to draw free-hand on the ground-covered metal plate with her etching tool rather than transfer the image from an initial drawing on paper. This approach endowed her prints with a certain immediacy and crispness more typical of drawing. Kenneth Hayes Miller's best known etchings are of the shoppers along New York's Fourteenth Street, of which The Conversation, c. 1932 and Leaving the Shop, 1929 (fig. 5) are examples. Hayes Miller also delighted in the seemingly insignificant moments, casual conversations and observant musings of the city's pedestrians. His prints provide an interesting look at women and at changing fashion. During the 1920s, the hemline of women's clothes had inched up towards the knee, while sheer shifts and flesh-colored silk stockings became fashionable. In Hayes Miller's Two Women with Mirror, 1930, the stocking seams and the provocative ribboned shifts worn by both the shopper and the sales clerk are prominently displayed. Reginald Marsh's lithograph, Girl Walking, 1945 (fig. 8), portrays a proud young woman strolling through the city showing off her short flowing dress, loosened hair, handbag and heels. In addition to women's fashion, many artists examined the growing role of women in the work place. Douglas Warner Gorsline's engraving, Brooklyn Local, 1945, captures a woman at a train station presumably on her way to work. Poking clever fun by playing with unusual perspective, Leo Meissner's It's a Small World, 1930, pictures a dog's eye view of a city street and its inhabitants.

To Raphael Soyer, a Russian immigrant, the city and its skyscrapers were seen as oppressive. People suffered in their urban environment. He directed his attention to the unemployed, the downtrodden and the effects of progress on humanity. Dancers, seamstresses and individual portraits make up Soyer's graphic oeuvre. The subtlety of his line and his ability to capture the intensity of a moment, an attitude or an emotion is particularly apparent in his powerful etching Woman with a Cross, 1963 (fig. 6). The woman in Soyer's print fixes her eyes on the viewer in a stoic pose that is both disturbing and revealing; she looks as if she has suffered greatly. There were many artists like Raphael Soyer, including John Sloan and Grant Wood, who were less optimistic about the Machine Age and identified the city and the machine with alienation. Michael J. Gallagher's linocut, Smoke Stacks, 1930, and Harry Sternberg's silkscreen, Steel, 1937, provide, perhaps, an alternative view of the impact of industry on the city and its people. Although Sternberg's prints relating to the steel industry seemingly promote progress, they focus on the pride and dignity of America's work force. His laborers are not mere cogs in a machine.

 

Traditional American Life

 

Much like the Barbizon painters in nineteenth-century France who turned to images of a pure landscape to escape urban grime and overpopulation, some American artists chose to focus on rural subject matter, preferring images of the countryside and scenes that depicted a simpler side of life. Grant Wood, a regionalist painter from Iowa, generally omitted reference to urban life or the machine in his works. His Honorary Degree, a lithograph of 1938 published by AAA, documents a personal achievement when the artist received an honorary doctorate in 1936 from the University of Wisconsin. Rural scenes depicting life in America's small towns (Thomas Hart Benton's lithograph Making Camp), marine life (Gordon Grant's lithograph The Hardy Breed, 1947 and Betty Waldo Parish's William's Wharf, 1935 - 45), and subjects dealing with American leisure activities, such as baseball (Fletcher Martin's lithograph, Double Play, 1952), carnivals and amusement parks (Minna Citron's lithograph Carousel, 1932), and boxing (Joseph Webster Golinkin's lithograph Louis v. Baer, 1935) celebrate the spirit and essence, as well as the diversity of life throughout America.

 

Caricature/Satire

 

Many artists, some of them illustrators, excelled in the art of satire and caricature. In their works they study characters and situations. George Bellow's lithograph of a Parlor Critic, 1921 (fig. 7), for example, finds comedy in the stiff nature of parlor society, manifested here in the figure of the critic. In Easter Sunday, 1933, Girls, 1928 and Onward and Upward, 1945, Adolf Dehn renders high society, show girls and nuns in comical situations that exaggerate reality in a lively, animated style that exploits the painterly qualities and rich dark tones afforded by lithography. Alexander King's lithograph Old Couple (Fulfillment), 1936 - 42 reminds us of Grant Wood's classic painting American Gothic, 1930, with added comic relief.

 

The Figure and Other Subjects

 

As prints gained acceptance as fine art in America, they also became an expressive vehicle in which to explore the human figure. There are a number of figural prints in this exhibition by Milton Avery, Will Barnet, Mary Cassatt, Federico Castellón, Arthur B. Davies, Philip Evergood, John Sloan, Moses Soyer, Raphael Soyer and Albert Sterner that illustrate the subtleties and sensitive portrayals achieved by printmakers in this period. Federico Castellón's Green Apples, 1948, for example, presents three different views of a woman in rich green tones. The subtle, tonal variations are achieved through the technique of aquatint. Arthur B. Davies' Release at the Gates, 1920, uses soft muted colors to create a mood in this fine lithograph. Davies was experimenting with color printing at this time, and only 25 of the 50 prints from this edition were made in color; the other half was printed in monotone. In the lithograph Pomegranate, Pear and Apple, 1923, Marsden Hartley has rendered the fruit in bold, gestural strokes. The monumental quality of these forms gives this still life a feeling that is almost epic.

Religious subject matter was another important area explored by artists of the American scene. Many prints, in fact, were created around American religious holidays, and often turned into Christmas cards. John Sloan's Christmas Dinners, 1909, for example, was printed as a holiday greeting. The wood-engravings by Bernard Brussel-Smith (Descent, 1940) and Clare Leighton (Nativity, 1949 - 50) are strong examples of traditional religious scenes rendered by American artists. Although not geographically specific, these prints bear an undeniable American feeling and flavor in their direct and frank rendition of a subject of another time. The same is true of Rockwell Kent's lithographs and woodcuts documenting his journeys throughout Europe and the far reaches of North America. Kent's Greenland Courtship, a lithograph of 1934, for example, depicts an Inuit couple in a tense embrace. The artist's monumental style, bold exaggerated realism and the manner in which he tells this couple's story is distinctly American. Kent was a highly influential painter and lithographer, and in his time was considered among the best American printmakers.

From the city to the countryside to the northern hinterlands and abroad, artists of the American scene indeed captured the spirit and essence of America by working, as John Steuart Curry described, "out of the fullness of our life and experiences."

 

Notes

1 June and Norman Kraeft, Great American Prints 1900 - 1950, New York: Dover Publications (1984) xiii.

2 Una E. Johnson, American Prints and Printmakers, New York: Doubleday & Company (1980) 71.

3 John Steuart Curry, "What Should the American Artist Paint?" Art Digest (September 1935) 29.

4 Johnson, American Prints and Printmakers 8.

5 Helen Farr Sloan, ed., John Sloan: New York Etchings (1905 - 1949) 67 Works, New York: Dover


About the author

Olga Viso is director of the Walker Art Center. Formerly, she was director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and curator for contemporary art at the Norton Gallery of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, where she developed that gallery's collection with a focus on Latin American and African American art. She holds an M.A. in history of art from Emory University and a B.A. in studio art and business from Rollins College.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 7, 2009, with permission of the author and the Norton Museum of Art, which were granted to TFAO on May 22, 2009, and June 17, 2009, respectively.

This essay appeared in the brochure for the exhibition Artists of the American Scene: A Selection from the Dr. Robert B. and Mrs. Dororthy M. Gronlund Collection of Twentieth-Century American Prints, which was organized by the then-Norton Gallery of Art and appeared at Pensacola Museum of Art (August 9 - September 20, 1994), the Norton Gallery of Art (November 19, 1994 - January 8, 1995), Wartburg College Gallery (February 27 - April 13, 1995), and Tampa Museum of Art (May 28 - August 21, 1995). This essay formed the basis for an article that appeared in the December 1994 - January 1995 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation the author and Leslie Friedlander, both of Walker Art Center; Kipper Lance and Karol Lurie of the Norton Museum of Art; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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